Welcome to opening day!!! Baseball is here and the Phillies look to contend again. They won 80 (it was an ugly road at the end) and improvements + use of a few what ifs look to get them to 87, probably 90-94. I started this entry about two weeks ago with the question, “Is this a make-or-break year for everyone on the roster?” However, this turned into more of a season preview as I expanded and edited. The answer to my initial question is: not everyone but the roster is becoming expensive. Arbitration, extensions, guys entering free agency soon (bullpen & Arietta) and a logjam of outfielders put almost everyone on the roster on alert. What will get them to below 87 or above 89? I have concluded that the rotation will be the biggest factor in determining success in combination with how Gabe Kapler manages games.
Last year, the starting pitchers ruled the roost during the first five months. The team won most of the first 60 games and they recovered nicely after being swept out of San Francisco: with three consecutive series wins (6-3 record) against the tough NL Central. All of that was thanks to the rotation keeping them in games, especially after a late-April change to the back-end. Of course, Nola’s lasted all of 2019 and received third place in Cy Young voting. Behind Nola’s curve & control, Arietta did very until his knee started hurting. He and IF C. Hernandez played with an injury, and while that’s admirable, I prefer these guys hit the DL & heal than play thru it & be less or in-effective as a result. (Side note: If I later say something to the contrary, please redirect me here). Back to Arietta… he must last through the year as he’s due to get a third year if he’s effective.
Eflin will join Velasquez’s four-seamer and Pivetta’s curve to round out the rotation. They all had either break-out performances or seasons in the past and this is the last year they get to prove whether they stick. Arbitration is coming. And all of them - and most of the bullpen, too - are right-handed pitchers. If they’re effective, it’s no big deal. Last year thru mid-Aug, they were just that: 3.70 ERA thru 8/12 ranked 7th but their 4.19 ERA since ranked 17th in those respective spans. A lefty to help keep opposing hitters off-balance would probably have led to another 1-3 wins during that late-year skid plus another 4-6 during the 1st four months, which is why the Phillies pursued those guys.
Defense & Gabe
Helping the pitchers will be better fielding performances and those will lead to better [defensive] decisions by Kapler & the staff. No one will be happier about that than Jake Arietta (lol!) if that becomes the case. The micromanaging of the line-up, pitching changes, substitutions, and defensive alignment was due, in part, to poor performance overall, except in some cases, including Nola being pulled on O.D. With Gabe, I hope “old habits die hard” doesn’t apply in the case of better performance. If he relies more on the eye test than he did last year, my hope will probably come to fruition, assuming better performances play out.
Most of these guys are in their early arbitration or last year of free agent deals. Most tired up down the stretch due to Gabe’s constant changes. I see more veterans already & expectations from Gabe are now established, so that should help. But I really think Gabe was more of a factor than performances. And a related side note, I personally am sick and tired of all the pitching changes & playing match-ups throughout baseball. I approve of the soon-to-be-implemented pitchers-facing-2-3-plus-batters rule. For the Phillies, MLB.com considers the bullpen a top-ten in the majors.
In conclusion, this is probably the area the Phillies will improve on in July as the trade deadline approaches either Keuchel, Kimbrel or trade for a lefty. The team doesn’t have too much room to play with before hitting the competitive balance (i.e. luxury) tax.
The balance in the line-up between sluggers, hitters and on-base guys was already much improved with the additions before landing Harper. The 1-2 punch with him and Hoskins has already demonstrated its danger to opposing pitchers and managers. That combo could yield over 75-85 HRs! And I speak for most Phillies fans, team personnel and Harper himself in hoping that Bryce gets off to a good start in year 1 of his 13-year deal. Segura & Realmuto are now into arbitration with extensions likely forthcoming and both are contact hitters. McCutchen can hit or get on base, so he could see time anywhere in the line-up. Now, he’s not blocking anyone on the 40-man roster offensively or defensively like Santana did, but Andrew does need to perform or he may be traded – Herrera, Cousins, Quinn and Williams have skills the Phillies would like to utilize. MLB.com also shares this line of thinking, good balance this year compared to mostly on-base guys last year… ranking the Phillies a top-ten offense.
It is the improvement here and coin-flip probabilities in the rotation’s potential (thanks to only Nola proven and Arietta being a veteran) that leads me to list them as the main factor in determining this year’s success. Gabe is also a factor (could be equal, more or less – depends on his in-game moves) but I think good performances will result in less strategy. Go Phillies!